Mamata Banerjee
File photo: The "United India" rally was attended by the leaders of India's main opposition parties in Kolkata, India a few years ago but a question mark remains on whether the opposition can take on the BJP Image Credit: Reuters

In India, it was the viral video of the week. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) holding a joint press conference about taking on the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2024, where Nitish kept telling KCR “chaliye” (let us go) and KCR kept telling him “baithiye” (sit, please). Observers counted 10 “chaliyes” and 19 “baithiyes.”

The back and forth was amusing but also reflective of the challenges that lie ahead for the opposition, as different regional parties try to come together ahead of the 2024 general election.

The contradictions notwithstanding, something has changed about the opposition efforts to fight the BJP. The ruling party has made no secret of the fact that he wants to finish off the Congress party. ‘Congress mukt bharat’ (India without Congress) is a slogan the BJP has strongly propelled.

And most regional forces didn’t really care — until now. That’s because the BJP is now not just aiming for a ‘Congress mukt bharat’ but a bharat (India) that is mukt (free) of all parties except the BJP.

Look at how the BJP has driven away its own allies in the NDA. From the Akali Dal to the Shiv Sena and now Nitish Kumar’s JDU. In fact, the JDU was pushed over the edge after BJP President JP Nadda openly said there will be no regional parties in the future.

Nitish Kumar
As a leader from the Hindi heartland and no baggage of dynasty, Nitish Kumar certainly seems a good candidate on paper Image Credit: ANI

This fight therefore is not just about the 2024 general election. For India’s opposition parties, this is now very much a battle for their long term survival.

That’s why Nitish Kumar and KCR spoke of forming a “main front” to take on the BJP. No one wants to wait for the Congress to sort out things for them.

In that sense, this is a moment that provides a unique opportunity to the opposition to foist a real fight. A senior opposition leader told me this is a fight that would have to be fought strategically state by state. But the weak link continues to be the Congress party, which has been in a direct fight with the BJP in nearly 180 Lok Sabha seats.

The other problem are the contradictions in the opposition ranks. The BJP has Narendra Modi as its undisputed leader but the opposition has a series of leaders who see themselves as potential prime ministers. From KCR to Mamata Banerjee, from Arvind Kejriwal to Nitish Kumar.

In fact, Nitish Kumar has launched his national campaign with a slogan that directly takes on the Prime Minister - “jumla nahin, hakikat”. His deputy Chief Minister and RJD leader Tejaswi Yadav has profusely praised Nitish’s qualifications to lead the country.

As a leader from the Hindi heartland and no baggage of dynasty, Nitish Kumar certainly seems a good candidate on paper. But it is his wavering political stand (this was the second time he quit the BJP alliance) and his party’s diminishing seats in Bihar, are a problem.

Then there is the AAP, which has publicly declared that the 2024 fight will be Modi vs Kejriwal. As the only regional party with Chief Ministers in two states — Delhi and Punjab — the AAP has certainly become a key challenger to the BJP, especially in the upcoming polls in Gujarat where reports suggest it may dent some of the BJP’s urban strongholds. But the AAP may be over ambitious for 2024.

WIN_200406 KCR-1586191718352
As a Chief Minister from the south who is fluent in Hindi, KCR believes he could be an acceptable face to lead the opposition Image Credit: Supplied

KCR fancies his own chances. As a Chief Minister from the south who is fluent in Hindi, he believes he could be an acceptable face to lead the opposition and has stepped up attacks on the BJP in recent months. Much of that comes from the worry that the BJP is making inroads in his state.

Mamata Banerjee has her own ambitions but her party’s — TMC — attempts to grow beyond Bengal have been rather underwhelming for now and the corruption allegations against top ministers could hurt her party.

That leaves the Congress. Well, what does one say. The supposedly pan India opposition party is imploding as we speak with more senior leaders ready to quit the party soon.

But here’s the thing. The BJP has reason to worry about losing Bihar to the mahagathbandan. With 40 Lok Sabha seats, Bihar has the 4th highest number of parliament seats. Bengal is the third highest with 42 seats and despite some setbacks, Mamata is still in pole position at the moment.

So the BJP will have to do extremely well in UP (80 seats) and Maharashtra (48 seats). It’s not yet clear how things may play out in Maharashtra with the shiv Sena split and if the alliance of the Uddhav’s Sena, Congress, and Sharad Pawar’s NCP fight together.

Prime Minister Modi is a formidable opponent who is clearly far ahead and the favourite to win. But if opposition parties play their cards right, the next election could be more interesting. The question is: can they get their house in order? Watch this space.